“If you’re such a big deal, why haven’t they ever made a movie?”
There’s something magical going on in “Jake Speed,” something that transcends the B-movie action and the occasionally clumsy moments. It’s a high premise movie where the only thing going on is the premise, but what a premise: it turns out all those action heroes from those cheap paperback thrillers your dad reads, well, they’re real. And from that, “Jake Speed” creates a world where cliché is the norm, where adventure is sought out for adventure’s sake, where good always triumphs over evil, no matter how ridiculous the odds.
The film is the brainchild of Wayne Crawford and Andrew Lane, the writing team that hit it big with the screenplay for “Valley Girl.” “Jake Speed” was their follow-up; Lane would direct, Crawford would star, both would produce. Their distributor would be Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, who had hoped the film would become their blockbuster for the summer of 1986. After all, paperback hero Remo Williams was successfully brought to the screen the year before, so why not Jake, too? Alas, it was lost in a busy season. Even though it had an opening weekend all to itself, it still couldn’t get noticed at multiplexes crammed with “Top Gun,” “Cobra,” “Poltergeist II,” and “Short Circuit.” Within two weeks, it would vanish completely, as, sadly, would the careers of its makers.
Ah, but it lived on, thanks to home video and cable reruns, and the rare few who would stumble across it over the years would discover something special hidden among its low budget goofiness. For “Jake Speed” is a movie built entirely out of charm, and it shows.
The story opens in Paris, where a couple of ruthless thugs are trailing some beautiful blondes. And right from the start we get our first red herring in a movie riddled with them: at the last minute, on a whim, the thugs abandon their prey and set out after another pair of young women. (The original targets had their lives saved by a random change of mind, and they never even knew it.) Their chase lands them one catch: Maureen (Becca C. Ashley), an American student traveling across Europe.
Weeks later and back in Los Angeles, Maureen’s family is beginning to lose hope, the State Department unable to help. That’s when Maureen’s doddering grandfather (Leon Ames) reveals his own plan: find a hero. Mack Bolan, Remo, Jake Speed. The crazy ramblings of an old fool? Perhaps not. Soon, Maureen’s older sister Maggie (Karen Kopins) is contacted by a mysterious duo claiming to be Jake Speed and his trusty assistant, Desmond Floyd. They can help, but only if Maggie agrees to come with them to the darkest reaches of Africa.
What’s brave about this set-up is how the screenplay refuses to show its hand, even when it would be completely safe to do so. There’s an air of mystery that surrounds Jake (Crawford) and Desmond (Dennis Christopher), as if they may turn out to be not their heroes they claim, but expert con men, or perhaps deluded souls convinced they are fictional characters. The script refuses to admit the truth until very late in the picture. Again, it’s a case of red herrings – even long after Maggie (and by extension, the viewer) has become convinced that this duo are the real deal, the script tosses us yet another chunk of doubt. It’s not until the epilogue where we can firmly accept the truth, even though we knew it all along: yup, these guys really are Jake and Des.
Such coyness threatens to undermine the very foundation of the movie’s sense of humor; if these guys are phonies, then how can we play along with their absurd rules of the game? Much of the comedy comes from Jake’s obsession with improving his own life story. In one terrific monologue, Jake tells Maggie of his half-formed rescue plan, revealing how he hopes to stumble upon a horde of poisonous snakes along the way because it “reads better.” And where Maggie is the voice of reason, Jake and Desmond come to us with comic book personalities. Jake’s dialogue is packed with action hero cliché, while Des (the Dr. Watson of the tale, chronicling Jake’s derring-do) sees the world around them with the simplicity of a paperback narrator. If these guys where merely impersonators, the very conceit of the rest of the movie – the over-the-top adventure-ness of it all – would fall apart.
But they are real, and as such, they teach us to believe in heroes, in the power of good over evil. Jake walks through the film aglow in his own confidence, not because he’s certain he’s the best hero ever, but simply because he believes that because he is the good guy, there’s no way he can fail. Good guys always win, right? It’s an unbridled optimism that gives the whole movie a cheery glow.
The idea of blind faith in the power of heroes is tackled early in the picture, as Maggie and friend Wendy (Donna Pescow), shortly after first meeting Jake, wonder about this very sort of optimism, which seems to have vanished in this modern age. “At least your grandfather believes in somebody… Who are our heroes?” Wendy asks, admiring the old man’s gusto, if not believing in it. “None,” Maggie replies, and it’s that revelation that convinces her to fly to Africa. Now more than ever, she needs someone to believe in. Why not Jake Speed?
While the film opens with its feet planted in reality, it slowly builds and builds in its absurdity until we reach a finale that’s 100 percent comic book. John Hurt arrives, hamming it up as Sid, Jake’s oily archnemesis. His lair is defended not only with a personal army, but a dungeon filled with hungry lions, too. The further Maggie gets into Jake’s world, the more of those you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me moments pop up. The film’s final act is an explosion of full-on parody, and Hurt’s Sid doesn’t even try to come close to reality. (“I’m the bad guy,” he explains. “I do anything I want!”)
Such a light spoof style grants the movie some breathing room when it comes to its mistakes. The dialogue is too clumsy at times, the supporting cast (most notably Kopins) is often off the mark, the plot is peppered with bullet-sized holes. But in a movie that’s aiming for a B-movie pulp actioner vibe, we dismiss such faulty moments as part of the charm. Lane handles the whole thing with a light, comical touch, and Crawford anchors the fantasy-as-reality conceit with a performance that’s somehow honest and snarky at the same time. The duo created something genuinely special with Jake Speed, a hero who reminds us it’s OK to believe.
Note: This review was originally written for eFilmCritic.